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Generation: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unraveled the Secrets of Sex, Life, and Growth Hardcover – August 8, 2006

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The New York Times Book of Medicine by Gina Kolata
The New York Times Book of Medicine by Gina Kolata
Look back at over 150 years of the evolution of medicine as told by The New York Times. Learn more | See all by author

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Today we all know the facts of life, but until the 17th century, even the most basic facts were a complete mystery. At that time, popular belief was that insects arose randomly from rotting meat and a leaf of basil pressed between two bricks would turn into a scorpion. But in one decade, three friends and scientists uncovered the foundations of our modern understanding of procreation: Jan Swammerdam, who was fascinated by insect generation; Niels Steno, "the first person to suggest that all female animals have ovaries"; and Reinier de Graaf, who proved that human females produce eggs. These three men, working in Holland in the 1660s and '70s, were united by the discovery of another Dutchman: Antoni Leeuwenhoek's powerful microscope. Cobb's thorough research results in a portrayal not only of the amazing discoveries in the science of reproduction but life in Holland at the height of its economic and intellectual powers. Cobb works a little too hard to give a sense of inevitability to the lives of his subjects, leading inexorably to their discoveries. If his functional prose lacks vividness at times, Cobb makes up for it with a wealth of historical details. B&w illus. (Aug.)
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From Booklist

That dreaded question children ask--Where do babies come from?--received only speculative answers until the advent of the scientific revolution. The crucial discovery, that the union of female egg and male sperm produces offspring, emerged from the collective efforts of a small group of anatomists and experimenters active in the 1660s and 1670s. In addition to discussing their experiments and communications, Cobb also treats the group members^B as formative examples of how the scientific process works. (This wider view will draw the history-of-science audience.) He opens with Elizabethan anatomist William Harvey, whose valedictory work put the idea of birth-from-egg in circulation. A troika of Dutch medical students then dominate Cobb's narrative, which recounts their academic tutelage, dissections of human reproductive organs, and the propagation of their writings to islets of learning such as London's Royal Society. Flavored with tales of rivalry among the scientists, Cobb's is an accessible account of a turning point in the history of physiology. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; 1 edition (August 8, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596910364
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596910362
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,741,563 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Rakesh Bhandari on October 27, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I ejoyed this book immensely. The human struggle to understand reproduction and development surely represents one of our greatest intellectual endeavors, and Cobb's writing both captures the drama and makes it accessible to a lay audience. It is also an entertaining and astonishing story as we are led through ideas from spontaneous generation to preformation and pre-existence.

But Cobb does much more than that: he recreates the social world of these scientists, laying bare their rivalries, their hardships, and idiosyncracies. The book is a remarkably rich historical study, which opens a window on early Modern Europe.

There are also many philosophical asides about the nature of science and experiment, the role of metaphor, and the non cumulative nature of scientific progress. Cobb wears his vast erudition lightly.

Lastly, Cobb is a wonderful and witty writer.

Rakesh Bhandari
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